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|<-Page||<-Team||Wed 09 Aug 2006 Hearts 1 AEK Athens 2||Team->||Page->|
|<-Srce||<-Type||Scotsman ------ Report||Type->||Srce->|
|Valdas Ivanauskas||<-auth||Barry Anderson||auth->||Nicolai Vollquartz|
|Aguiar Bruno||[P Kapetanos 88] ;[N Liberopoulos 93]|
|30||of 066||Saulius Mikoliunas 61||E||H|
Gordon's grin is the best tonic
BARRY ANDERSON (email@example.com)
THE morning of potentially your club's most historic day is perhaps not the most opportune time for cracking jokes, but given the immense pressure presently enveloping Tynecastle Craig Gordon's means of release is fully understandable.
It is, after all, the goalkeeper's reserved and reposed manner which has served him so well through his short career thus far, taking him to the cusp of international stardom and, as Hearts fans will hope, Champions League notoriety.
The likes of the lively Roman Bednar would probably be expected to be awake for at least half of last night in anticipation of the biggest game of his own burgeoning career, but Gordon's approach is the complete antithesis. Agitation isn't a word in the goalkeeper's dictionary, and he is most comfortable using humour as a means of easing the tension before confronting AEK Athens.
It matters not that the two games with the Greeks over the next fortnight could be worth anything from £6million to £10m to Hearts and their money-hungry owner Vladimir Romanov. Winning, and securing a coveted place in the Champions League group phase, are the primary concerns, followed closely by a right good kip, apparently.
"I slept like a log last night," says Gordon with a wry smile. "It's another game and you just have to treat it that way. I've played in big games before and it's something you do get used to. You get into routines."
Did he even wake up early due to the odd butterfly meandering round his stomach? "No, I was still in my bed. Right up until the last possible minute before we had to go for breakfast this morning. Even then I was contemplating just getting Banksy to bring me something back up to the hotel room. I like to have a sleep in the afternoon as well and just relax. There's nothing you can do before the game to change anything, so I personally just like to go easy and wait on the game.
"Some of the players don't sleep because it's a big occasion. I find it a big occasion too, I'm excited and a bit nervous but it's important not to be overawed."
Underneath his composure there is, unquestionably, a dedicated professional with an unwavering ability to focus his mind on any principle task. Like acting as a one-man barrier to the AEK Athens forward line, which will be led by captain and top goalscorer Nikos Liberopoulos.
One critical selection decision for head coach Valdas Ivanauskas will directly affect Gordon. Christophe Berra has been a standout since the season's inception but the knowledge and insight possessed by new Greek signing Hristos Karipidis may be deemed too valuable to leave on the substitute's bench tonight. Even a surprise change of system to accommodate a triumvirate of Steven Pressley, Berra and Karipidis has not been ruled out.
"It's normal to question what will happen about Christophe or even about Elvis," admits Ivanauskas. "I have other systems in mind that we could play and Christophe can operate in several positions so there is no problem with him."
Gordon adds: "We have the players to play any formation and I've played three at the back before. We are aware of what we are getting into. Shaggy [Stevie Frail] has spoken to us and basically said AEK are a very formidable side because he watched them against Benfica last week when they won 3-1. They pass the ball well and they have a couple of big boys up front who are very useful. We know they are a dangerous team but we would look to win any game at home."
Again, confident yet unnerved. You get the impression that, in Gordon's house, the taps never run... they stroll. When pressed, he does allude to the likelihood of some initial nerves at Murrayfield tonight, when Hearts could be playing in front of their second biggest ever European crowd if club predictions of a 30,000-plus attendance materialise. The club's 37,500 attendance against Standard Liege in 1958 stands as their European record.
"Nerves are a possibility because it's such a massive game. I'd be lying if I said there weren't slight nerves but I'd imagine that'll be the same on both sides because there is a lot of pressure on AEK to go and win this tie. It will be down to who handles the occasion best and if we can have as many Jambos here as possible then that can only help us.
"If we could get anywhere near close to filling this thing [Murrayfield], it would be great."
In it for the money has never been an accusation which could justifiably be aimed at the current Hearts squad. Romanov has deliberately pieced together a group of primarily young but extremely hungry Europeans, and structured them round the core Scottish element in the side to pretty devastating effect as Celtic might attest after Sunday's defeat. It is safe to assume that the players' individual bonuses for dispensing with AEK and progressing to the groups will be considerable, and certainly increased from the regular week-to-week remuneration they accumulate for victories in the SPL.
Nevertheless, in a season which is more about gaining momentum and forcing Hearts further into the limelight both in Scotland and in Europe, any monetary reward is of little significance.
"I don't think you can afford to stop and think about the money involved in a game like this," Gordon goes on. "It's a game of football, and whatever it's worth to the club or us as players is irrelevant. You want to win the game because of the prestige of the tournament; to get into that group stage and test yourself against the best sides. It's a step up in class from what we're used to, but we have a few players in our dressing room with experience and we're excited about the game."
The experiences of Bruno Aguiar, Takis Fyssas and Edgar Jankauskas, the latter a Champions League veteran at the age of 31 with a 2004 winner's medal from his time at Porto, should act as a spur to those in the Hearts dressing room who have yet to sample the business end of UEFA's premier tournament. Even Pressley, who dipped a toe into Champions League waters with Rangers in the early 1990s, has been ready with a couple of tales to inspire. "Elvis is still casting back 12 years to his last game in the Champions League [at the time, Gordon was just 11]. So it's nice for him to get another bite at the cherry. All the young boys are excited, it's something we have all dreamt about for years. Now we have that chance.
"I'm sure the older boys will be very calm about the whole thing having seen it before. Hopefully that will rub off on the rest of us because it's important we don't get carried away thinking about what's at stake or what would happen if we went through."
Gordon? Carried away? Who exactly is he kidding? Since his Hearts debut at the tender age of 19 in 2002, the Edinburgh-born keeper has displayed an assurance that few of his more celebrated peers could master. Every bit of it will be necessary tonight, and especially in Athens in two weeks, if AEK are to suffer elimination in the first matches of their new coach, Lorenzo Serra Ferrer.
"I think we have to dictate to them and show we are a decent side ourselves," says Gordon. "We can cause them problems and we need to go into this game looking to win it. Every one of the players is aware of that."
Whether they tossed and turned on the pillow all night thinking about it, or managed to give it big zeds like their goalkeeper, there is nothing more awakening than the roar of the Hearts support on a spine-tingling European night.
Gordon has encountered that a few times already in his life, but the decibel level is set to rise.
Taken from the Scotsman
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